Innovation is a buzzword throughout development circles from large institutional grant making organisations to grassroots NGOs working in some of the poorest places on earth. Innovation is more often than not a necessity for NGOs with strictly limited funds and resources yet are trying to conquer huge development challenges. Many NGOs are forced to think differently and creatively about how to utilise their resources and environment just to survive.
Increasingly, innovation is something that is inescapable for most NGOs and especially those keen to secure grant based project funding. The huge majority of grant funding opportunities from New York to New Dehli demand that applicant NGOs demonstrate that their proposed projects are innovative in one way or another. Whether it is the delivery or services, communications techniques, donor support or the application of technology, NGOs the world over are asked to innovate to secure funding.
Most people within NGOs understand why grant makers are so keen to support innovative projects. We need to continue to think and do things differently to try and improve the world, but innovation is also an increasingly common source of frustration for grant writers and project developers. Often NGOs have successful projects that are proven, highly effective and in demand, yet funder’s often won’t support them unless new innovative elements are introduced to modify the project. This can be difficult and challenging for NGOs and can often compromise otherwise excellent projects that are simply in need of more funding and little else.
To provide a little support and inspiration for NGOs caught in the “innovate for funding” trap we’ve compiled a list of the ten most innovative NGOs on the planet.
The organisation is fundamentally based around the concept of “A radical new way to give: directly”. Never before has an NGO been established to divert funds directly into individuals and family’s hands, cutting out the middle man and all the expenses with it as they go. The NGO has been tremendously effective in just its short time in operation and was recently lauded as one of the Give Well’s Top Charities for Giving Season 2013. The concept behind Give Directly is beautifully simple: 1) Donate through their webpage 2) Give Directly locates poor households in Kenya and Uganda 3) The NGO transfers your donation to the recipient electronically via their phone 4) The beneficiary uses the contribution to pursue his or her goals however they wish.
APOPO, Dutch for Anti-Persoonsmijnen Ontmijnende Product Ontwikkeling, or Anti-Personnel Landmines Detection Product Development in English, is a social enterprise that researches, develops and implements detection rat technology for humanitarian purposes. Yes, rats! APOPO have trained giant African pouched rats to tackle two of the most challenging development solutions in Africa, landmines and Tuberculosis. Both landmines and TB continue to kill people every day around the world, yet solutions to counter the threat have barely evolved in the last few decades. That is until a Flemish rodent enthusiast by the name of Bart Weetjens pioneered the use of indigenous African rodents to detect un-exploded mines and weaponry in the earth and TB in sputum samples. The organisation has made a huge impact since its formation in 1997 and this year was voted as the eleventh best NGO in the world.
Another reletively new NGO who has made considerable waves with its innovative approach over the past decade is charity: water. The organisation was established to tackle the most basic of human needs, access to clean water. Working mostly in the developing world the NGO has is famed for its brilliant digital presence and marketing as well as innovative donor strategies such as guarenteeing that 100% of public donations will be used fund clean water projects. They achieve this by developing long term relationships with institutional donors who agree to cover their management and administrative costs. Their approach has caught the eye of both individuals and funding organisations with its excellent track record and it looks like the NGO will continue to go from strength to strength in the coming years.
Wild4Life was established to serve people in remote, rural communities who have limited or no access to health service providers. The NGO has developed a fantastically innovative service delivery model that maximises the environment they operate in to reach more people than would be otherwise possible. The model involves partnering with organisations that are already established in remote areas and have well developed connections with the local community. This approach serves to leverage existing infrastructure, knowledge and social ties with Wild4Lifes network of health providers to enable life changing treatment and support to reach some of the hardest to reach people and places on the planet. The NGO is active in twelve countries throughout sub-Saharan Africa delivering supremely low cost interventions that are both sustainable and scalable.
ZanaLife, based in Kenya, is a hybrid healthcare and girls education NGO that is working to helping young women stay in school and reach their potential. The organisation is tackling two core humanitarian issues at once, a lack of access to appropriate health care information and products, and the rate at which young girls in Africa drop out of schooling. Their latest initiative is to create truly affordable sanitary pads combined with health education through an interactive comic-based pamphlet that is designed to enable girls to make informed decisions and measurably increase their productivity and health. ZanaLife’s research has shown that pads and healthcare information win back 75% of learning days, helping girls to stay in school and fulfil their potential. By 2020 the NGO aims to reach three million girls with pads and supply over ten million comics across East Africa.
UK based charity ColaLife has sought to embrace the network and reach of one of the worlds biggest brands to provide health resources to people living in rural and remote locations that are underserved. The charity was based around the concept that wherever you go in the world you will see the hallmark of Coca-Cola. The founders of ColaLife asked if a softs drinks manufacturer can create a network that can reach into the most remote places on earth, why can’t we deliver healthcare in the same way? Their entire ethos can be summed up in three points…
- You can buy a Coca-Cola almost anywhere you go in the world, even in the most remote parts of developing countries
- In these same places 1 in 9 children die before their fifth birthday from preventable causes. Most die from dehydration from diarrhoea.
- The child mortality figures have not changed significantly for at least 3 decades which would indicate that current initiatives are not working
This grounding led the team at ColaLife to develop the AidPod, a wedge shaped pod that that fits in the space between the necks and bottles in a Coca-Cola crate. Although still in the pilot stage, if ColaLife can successfully emulate the distribution networks of Coca-Cola then real change will soon follow.
Inspired by the death of a friend during childbirth, the founders of Tomike Health set out to to ensure that women across western Africa had access to maternity care. Rather than establishing a basic NGO that relied on grants and donations they demanded that their new organisation would become self sustainable. To achieve this Tomike Health have combined business, job training and clinical innovations to create a self-sustaining and scalable solution to reproductive health. The NGO has continued to introduce innovative strategies and technologies througfhout its development including mobile health and electronic medical records as well as financial and marketing innovations in an attempt to reach the one million plus women who give birth each year in urban West Africa.
UNICEF is not actually an NGO but rather an IGO but they deserve a place in this chart for the way they have embraced innovation in both design and implementation. With their own dedicated unit they have introduced a series of novel innovations within the development industry from youth centres to vaccine storage and much more. UNICEF has a stated ambition to work with and alongside their beneficiary communities around the world to explore and develop new ways to empower children and their families. The organisation has even taken the impressive step of crowdsourcing solutions to development challenges online calling for support and suggestions in areas as diverse as diarrhoea treatment and increasing child birth registration.
Most people are familiar with one of the worlds most popular websites, the online, user generated encyclopedia Wikipedia. Originally a for profit enterprise, it evolved into a not for profit foundation in 2003 and has continued to build on the foundations of Wikipedia. In addition to the free multilingual encyclopedia, the foundation manages a multi-lamguage dictionary and thesaurus named Wiktionary, an encyclopedia of quotations named Wikiquote, a collection of ebooks for students known as Wikibooks and a resource of educational materials and activities called Wikiversity.
The Wikimedia Foundation has innovated one of the most transparent organisations on the planet as it works towards collecting, developing and disseminating educational content for free to the public in every country in the world. An essential part of the Wikimedia Foundation’s mission is encouraging the development of free-content educational resources that may be created, used, and reused by the entire human community.
10. Frontline SMS
Frontline SMS is a free open source software that was developed by the Social Impact Lab to enable SMS management tools that can reach over three billion people through the phone in their pocket. In just a few years it has quickly become the world’s most popular text messaging software and it is completely free and open source. It can work without an internet connection and with only a cell phone and computer.
The software was originally developed in 2005 for conservationists to keep in touch with communities in Kruger National Park in South Africa. More recently it was used by the Network of Mobile Election Monitors to oversee the Nigerian and Afghan presidential elections, as well as in disaster response in Haiti and the Phillipines.
FrontlineSMS and its sister organizations are also improving the provision of healthcare in developing countries, where bad roads, long distances, and a shortage of healthcare workers make delivering care difficult. Community health workers use FrontlineSMS:Medic to transmit information about symptoms and follow up with patients much more quickly and efficiently. When FrontlineSMS:Medic was first introduced in one area of Malawi, the local hospital doubled the number of tuberculosis patients treated over six months, while saving 2,100 hours in travel and work time and $3,500 in costs. The software is now being used in 11 countries, mostly in sub Saharan Africa.